In the fall of 2000, I lived in Fairbanks, AK, in what I called a "QuanseSquareTrailer". It was a Quonset Hut, built over a square frame built over a 16 foot trailer. To stand on the outside, it was a hot mess. But then, most cheap living quarters in Alaska are. The rent was $500.00 per month and that included utilities. When you were living on Unemployment Income, it was doable and I didn't think I was going to be there for more than a few months. The plan was to stay the winter, wait for my mom to come up in the Spring so we could scatter my dad's ashes where he was the most happy, then come back to Oregon together.
Ah, the best laid plans...
Once you are in AK and winter sets in, it's not easy to get out. Don't get me wrong, I love the state, even when it's too cold to open your front door. But, with no car or tools and not much money, you make do. I found this little "esthetically challenged" abode that was close to a bus stop, store, drive-in burger joint, and I grabbed it. Now, when you see the before photos, keep in mind that I saw a sows ear and made it into a silk purse. Well, at least it was 1000% better than it was before.
I suggested because of the length and detail and amount of photos this essay had, that I break it up over two essays, and the wise people at TF agreed. So, rather than break it up by time, I decided to do it by trailer vs. the box it was in. Now, whatever house you live in, I am pretty sure that you will appreciate it a great deal more once this journey of ours is over. So, if you are still interested in what was done, how it was done, and what it cost, sit back with a good cup of anything, and read on.
As you will see by the photos, the kitchen was the largest room in the original trailer. There was a bathroom you almost had to back into and out of, and an area in the back that was no doubt the bedroom/living room combo. I don't do gas, so the first thing I did was to cap that off, using the dinky little oven for pots and pans. I had a toaster oven big enough for anything that I cooked, a skillet and crock pot, and of course a microwave. I got all of those for free by the way, which I will go into later.
The fridge was in good shape, but it had to be left where it was. I thought of bringing it around to block off one entrance into the back room, leaving another entrance from the bedroom. I changed my mind when I realized there was a 5” gap between where the trailer floor and the main floor met. Filling that gap was easy, but not tripping over it was not.
Most of the windows were the standard crank type that older trailers had. I love a cool breeze when I do dishes, but not in October. There were some carpet padding scraps in the bedroom when I got there, so I cut a piece the size of the window, sealed it with duct tape, and covered it with lathe strips. The dark had already settled in for the year, and there was nothing to see but someone else's bathroom, so I didn't lose much.
I stored the gas burners and covered the top of the range with a scrap piece of plywood, sealed it, and used it for counter space. The trailer was over 40 years old, but everything still worked. Some of the exterior walls had to be shored up to keep out the cold, but with some good caulking and foam sealer, it wasn't much work or money. Once it was more airtight, a little radiator heater that circulated oil kept me warm even in the toughest of winter weather. I also had a small crock pot going all the time, as the weather is so dry and you feel that inside your home, too. Keeping the air moist allows you to breath easier and not get chapped skin.
One of the tricks to Alaskan housing is that most, if not all, have what is called a "lean to" or porch that keeps out some of the cold. Also, the doors are not facing the same direction, which keeps drafts from coming in the same direction. You can keep things "temperate" with a 150w bulb on the porch at all times, which keeps a surprising amount of heat where you need it. I actually used a heat lamp to keep my pup warm when she came in from outside. When I finish the essay in part two, I will go through making a "poor style puppy door".
Sealing the drafts and getting the kitchen "useable" took about 3 days. Because it wasn't my first winter, I knew ahead of time the little tricks you use to keep things running. During the night, you throw a quart of warm or hot water down the toilet when you flush. You keep valuables like nice photos of family off the walls so they don't draw moisture. Throw rugs are your best friends. And as before, any window that is not going to give you light or a view can be weatherproofed and covered. For some, that is like living in a cave, and they can't handle it. I guess I was born for it, because it made me feel private and secure.
The next thing I did was paint. It was white for the entire project as that does give you an open feeling, and that took about a day. I didn't bother with the insides of any cabinets or closets, but did include the ceilings. Since the vent from the trailer just led to the inside of the house, I covered that up with lathe strips, too. The floor was ugly but in good shape so I left it alone.
You are going to see me talk some about lathe strips. For a cheap and rustic/country look, you can't beat them. Plus, they were only $.19 for a 4 foot length, and did so many things for so little money. In the next essay you will see why I bought them in bundles of 60. I used them in every room of the house, with either glue or small tack nails. On the other side of the kitchen, there was a large window that had glass in it from the original trailer, and the lathe strips from the other side showed through. With an old closet louver door and some gray "L" brackets, I had counter space for appliances and such. I made a couple of shelves above for dishes, pretties, and kitchen things. The landlord gave me a microwave cart that held all the rest of the kitchen things we need like crock pot, coffee maker, etc. I got a couple of the roll around carts underneath. One was for foods like pastas, spuds, onions, and one for my plastics. Most of the cabinet doors and the drawers were trashed, so I just took them off, which helps keep pipes from freezing. With some fabric to cover them, the kitchen was pretty much done.
As I said before, the bathroom was very small, just 4x4 feet. The sink was so small I could cover it with a dinner plate. But again, everything worked, so I didn't mind.
Once it was painted, I found a black shower curtain, crocheted some seat and tank covers, and found a rug that just fit around the toilet. There was another window, but it had already been covered by the living room wall, so I just had to make some curtains. A little shelf here and there, and my red accents, and it was livable. I am not sure why someone would make a peach colored sink and toilet, but when you look at the colors in the kitchen before I guess it made sense. It took three coats to cover the kitchen aqua, so I was happy the bathroom didn't have any. The bathroom renovations took about 2 days.
The back room would be where I did my crafts, so it didn't have to be pretty, just functional. Again, I had to put some padding in the windows and seal them. For covering, I simply taped up some flattened cardboard boxes. I was lucky that there were cupboards above the sleeping area for clothes, that went for supplies. The table was a hollow core door with "L" brackets in the back and 2x4 supports in the front. I did the same thing for a desk that I will show you later. The chair was a toss away from down the street in perfect condition.
I did have to buy some tools, but three thrift shops were within 8 blocks of me. I got some hand tools of course, a drill and jigsaw. The rest of the supplies I got at the local Fred Meyer, which took two buses to get to. Then, when I was done shopping, my friend who worked there would drop me off on her way home. Fairbanks is a fairly big city but they have an amazing bus system. Each "line" had a color, and the schedules and passes were printed on that colored paper, so you couldn't get lost. I would walk 2 blocks, cross the street and catch one going down town which was about 1/2 of a mile. A nice walk in the summer, but not when it's -5.
I promised I would talk about the free stuff so here it is. Alaska has a really good attitude about being thrifty and knowing that people have needs they can't always meet. Their Recycling Centers are arranged with big bins about 3 times the size of ours, marked "glass", "boxes", "carpeting", "newspaper", and the like. But, they also have an area where there is a floor and a metal roof with bins that you can leave good things for people to come and get. I got things like flannel sheets, couch pillows, the couch itself, all the appliances I owned, clothes, shoes, coats, furniture and even once, a big bag of yarn. In the middle of or even the start of winter, no one can have a yard sale. So, they take the things they don't want or the thrift shops can't take, and give them for those who need them. My friend and I would go out there on a Friday afternoon and take what we didn't need and take back what I did. She had a nice job and house and never took anything, and I took only what I needed. Craigslist wasn't around then, or if it was, I didn't have a computer. There is a really good "help thy neighbor" attitude up there that is unmatched down here.
So at this point, my little hovel is livable in the trailer section, and this essay is done. I hope you enjoyed it and look forward to the "rest of the house" next time.
By Sandi A. from Salem, OR
My Frugal Life
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Thanks. I have been doing things like this for years. The second half is being written this weekend, posted when the crew has time and room. You are very kind. PBP
I loved it. I have really enjoyed the story on how you made good from bad. I am looking forward to reading another story on how you did things, what next you did with your trailer, and etc. Very interesting.
First off, I never did finish the bedroom, although I did have a bed and dresser in there, plus the closet you see shared with the hot water heater. Needless to say, in a small house there is very little, if any, space to waste. That was also true of clothing, so I didn't have much to try and find room for. The bed was a makeshift that you would all find truly frugal. I only wish I have a shot of it.
Living close to a liquor store has other advantages besides liquor. I was able to get boxes all the same size, fill them with empty bottles all the same size, and make a base for my bed. I just needed six, and an old door. Voila! The mattress was a freebie from the local recycling center that I mentioned in the first essay. I spent $3.00 on sheets and bought a $5.00 electric blanket and I was set. The bed was really comfy when my Husky/Malamute mix baby girl Salsha let me have any room, that is.
The "box" that was built over the trailer was basically a big rectangle. That allowed for an "entryway" into the bedroom or trailer part. I wanted to separate the bedroom from the rest of the house, as the angle was in line of site when you came into the house.
I bought some 2X4's and with one of the few tools I bought, cut them so there was a framed out wall with an entry way. I did not need to be fancy since the door was just going to be a curtain, but I did have to make sure the 4 foot long lathe strips would work. Luckily, the space between the outer wall and the trailer wall was just right. I drilled holes in the boards and screwed them to the outer and trailer walls. Once that was done, there was a horizontal one above them, and a smaller piece between the outer wall stud and the door frame. Then, there was one vertical for the door frame. Had I to do it again, I would have just done one across the top and hung some curtains. I think my motivation was that I wanted the walls to match the trailer part, which you can see was the finished product.
The space above the trailer was actually open, and there was a bunch of junk up there. So, to hide the debris, I sat those big popcorn tins and teddies so you would have to be 12 feet tall to see over them. The lathe strips I mentioned in the first post were a godsend. They lent an air of rustic to the house, plus at 19 cents each (even less when you bought them by a bundle of 60), they were a real bargain.
Because there is little structural integrity in a small trailer, I didn't have much to nail them too. That is why I now love the caulking adhesive used for wood. I nailed what I could, but used a bead of caulk on each one for extra stability. The back arch of the trailer was actually visible. For that, I simply ran the end of the strips to the wall of the living room, so that never showed. With the uneven top making me crazy, I used a piece of 1/2 by 3 inch board across to "frame it in". Some calendar art and fake flowers and my "ugly duckling became a nice little foyer." Ok, that is a bit of a stretch but it sure looked nicer, you gotta' give me that!
The living room was not without it's challenges, too. I needed a desk/TV place and I made that with three simple things. One was 3 large metal "L" brackets, into the wall at the proper height. Two was have two scrap 2X4's cut, securing one to the wall with smaller "L" brackets on the right side of the board (so it's unseen under the desk) and one facing the door frame in the front. I put 4 more of the brackets on the second support board, two at the top and two at the bottom, so that they supported the door frame and became support on the floor. I drove nails into those, as the carpeting hid any damage (and let's face it, the subfloor wasn't all that great). Again, I put them in so they would go under the desk. After setting the door on the supports, I screwed them to the door and I had an 8 by 3.5 foot desk for crafting, doing paperwork, and easy cable access. I fancied a curtain so I could hide ugly things underneath, but did that after I took the shot.
Entryways in AK are designed to keep a blast of wind out when you open the "mud room" door and then the house door. In other words, one door is facing one direction, then you turn left or right and go into the house. It's great for keeping out the cold, but it's also great for keeping out furniture longer than 2 feet!
I wish I had taken a photo, but I swear to you all that I took the frames off the window and slid my love seat in through it with the help of two sweet neighbors. Had it been 1/4 inch wider, I don't think it would have worked without taking an exterior wall off the mud room. Since most of them are just plywood without insulation, that would have been doable but this worked. They say when you are Alaska, you make do. Well, I sure did that day! Luckily I knew how a window is built so I took it apart and put it back together, even caulking it better when I did.
I mentioned before that if a window doesn't look out onto anything worth seeing and it's dark all the time, most of the Alaskan people insulated theirs with really nice, expensive double pane glass. Then, they have nice thick drapes that keep out the cold. The only thing I had in common with these folks is that I had a window
I found an old couch cushion at the recycling center and cut one in half. It fit inside the window just perfectly. Of course, lathe strips were used to keep them in place. Homemade curtains from an old skirt worked really well. For 4 months, two circulated oil radiator heaters kept the house warm.
My color scheme then was hunter green and burgundy, as you can see by the door, couch, and coffee table. It's amazing what you can accomplish with a quart of paint and a little time. I decorated the walls with calendar art, family photos, and post cards. My teddies and some of my snails were there to make me feel at home. I had a VCR, tiny TV, a landline, and books/crafts to keep me from getting cabin fever. Every third day, I took a bus to the library and used the computer and hit any thrift store things I might need.
The renovation took about 2 weeks, and I was there for almost 5 months. I learned a lot about myself during that time. One, I can rely on myself to do just about anything. Two, I enjoy my own company. And three, that with a little ingenuity and work, you really can turn a sow's ear into a silk purse!
I hope you have enjoyed this as much as I have. I never knew then when I was taking photos that 12 years later anyone might be interested in what I did. But then I didn't know then I would be a "Thrifty Funner"now.
By Sandi from Salem, OR
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